Of Love, Rass, God, and Music
A telephone call woke me up today. I grumbled and cussed silently; I’d been dreaming of Woodstock- in fact, I was on stage singing a duet with Janis Joplin! Unwillingly I press the green call button, and that one phone call made my day. An international television network was picking up my debut single, and wanted to air it on one of their music channels. Now, whether this’ll eventually materialize is anybody’s guess, but the news certainly set the tone for the rest of the day.
A few professionally significant things occurred today, which I will share with all of you in due course of time. But, there was more. In between an intense discussion about work, there was a brief mention of Benares and its music. Those 10 minutes have stayed with me. Every word we spoke- chaiti, kajri, thumri- is still ringing in my ears. Because every syllable in them is music to my ears. Those of you who enjoy listening to Indian semi-classical music will surely be familiar with the music of Pandit Channulal Mishra. He once described the word Benares perfectly at one of his concerts. He said, rass ka bana yaani Benares. I wish I could translate this into English, but sadly there is no English equivalent of rass. Just the way there is no Hindi equivalent of the blues!
Benares is, perhaps, one of the most musical cities in India. There’s music in every sound- the gentle waves of the Ganges crashing against the steps of the many ghats, the mooing of cows in the little alleys all over Benares, the tinkling of the anklets that local women wear, the ringing of bells during prayers at the many temples that dot the city, the beating of the drums, bellowing of the conches, and clanking of the cymbals during the evening aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat, the sultry voice from a kotha that breaks the silence of a full-moon night, the chanting of mantras during the early morning dip in the Ganga. With such rich sounds floating about, it is but natural that the music of the city will be equally rich! We spoke today of a very popular kajri, Barsan Laagi Badariya. It has been immortalized by Girija Devi. And, of Jhoola Dheerey Se Jhulao that has been flawlessly rendered by thumri exponents like Shobha Gurtu and Channulal Mishra. We spoke of sohar- songs sung by women at the birth of a boy. There’s a common thread that binds all these different styles of music- rass. This rass is full of mithaas, and smells of Benares- the sweet incense that burns at temples, generous cow droppings across the city, the corpses that burn at the cremation ghats, the wet earth washed by the river, the intoxicating fragrance of the mogra gajra that’s entwined with the intricately arranged bun at the nape of the bai ji’s neck.
Just a while back I was listening to Channulal ji’s rendition of a chaiti- Benarasi folk-inspired songs sung in the summer- Sejiyan Se Saiyyan Rooth Gaye. And, I was transported back to Benares- the ghats, the temples, the boats sailing down the Ganga, the vivid colors, the addictive sounds. There is perhaps not any kind of music like that of Benares that is so intensely romantic and playfully naughty at the same time. It’s as much an ode to God as it is a love letter. It’s as much a celebration as it is a prayer. You can take the music out of Benares, but can’t take Benares out of the music.
Malini Banerjee is a snotty single child, mountain junkie, playback singer, Austen addict, hopes to soon finish writing her debut novel, and dreams of singing alongside Buddy Guy